What I Read as an English Literature Student
Updated: Aug 12, 2020
I’ve been an English student for three years now. It’s pretty wild to think I’m starting my final year of my undergrad in September. Throughout my degree, I’ve read a bunch of stuff I never would have picked up if it wasn’t required reading—not in a million years.
If you want to brush up on your niche/weird/classic lit or you want to know what I read when I’m not skimming the YA section, here you go! I’ll cite the editions I used as I go along so that you can check them out if you’re interested.
Where I study, Old English is mandatory for all first year students. That means learning an entirely new language, which is insane but also really fun. Most of this stuff has been translated accessibly a ton of times, but looking at the original language is also really interesting. One of my all-time favourite poems (and a favourite of J.R.R. Tolkien) is ‘The Wanderer’. It’s an elegy from the perspective of a man whose lord has died, and now he’s wandering in search of a new one. It’s a really tragic and beautiful poem and Tolkien used a pretty big chunk of it as direct inspiration in The Lord of the Rings.
It’s used in the Rohirrim’s lament in The Two Towers. The manuscript that the poem is found in (the Exeter Book) dates back to c. 973 CE, although we think the poem was probably written earlier.
Here’s the section of ‘The Wanderer’ that Tolkien used:
Hwǣr cwōm mearg? Hwǣr cwōm mago? Hwǣr cwōm māþþumgyfa? Hwǣr cwōm symbla gesetu? Hwǣr sindon seledrēamas? Ēalā beorht bune! Ēalā byrnwiga! Ēalā þēodnes þrym! Hū sēo þrāg gewāt, genāp under nihthelm, swā hēo nō wǣre.
Here’s Aragorn’s translation of the Rohirrim’s lament in The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien:
Where now is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning?
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
I should mention that possibly the best Old English resource out there, Peter Baker’s Old English Aerobics website, is currently open access. I’ve cited it down below and linked it, so do go and take a look—there are lots of texts there with and without translations, plus grammar and vocabulary exercises if you did want to try learning some Old English for yourself. Give it a go!
Middle English (ME) is the little brother of Old English. Some ME texts are more accessible than others, since the linguistic period spans a much larger breadth of time than Old English. This means we have texts in older forms, which could be unintelligible to you if you don’t have a good grasp of Old English, or there are the later styles that are a lot closer to modern English.
We also have a lot more texts written in ME for a variety of reasons: they’re newer, for one; in some instances they were better protected; the materials being used in making manuscripts had progressed; and reading and writing were becoming more widespread.
‘The Knight’s Tale’ is a good, classic romance—rivalry between cousins who are in love with the same woman, lovesickness, mistaken identity, and a whole lot of other nonsense makes up this fantastic story. Or, there’s the weird-ass ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’, which is about a chicken called Chauntecleer. I’ve got to say, I would strongly recommend the chicken story.
I’m Irish and I study in Ireland and I love Irish writing! Really, I do! And I especially love the plays that came from the Gaelic Revival period, when Ireland was approaching the end of England’s colonial rule. ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’ is one of my favourite plays to come out of the Gaelic Revival, written c. 1903, and it’s also one I’ve studied more than once in college. It’s one of those texts that just comes up over and over again because it’s so relevant. It’s usually cited as having been written by W.B. Yeats (it’s Y-E-A-T-S rhymes with G-A-T-E-S by the way, not Y-E-A-T-S as in YEET).
But actually a lot of the work of writing this play was done by a woman called Lady Gregory. She was a good friend of Yeats, and we’re not sure exactly how much of the play Lady Gregory wrote. A lot, probably. Lady Gregory was kind of an icon because she was born into the class of Anglo-Irish gentry, but she turned against them and became one of the most prominent voices calling for Irish independence. You can still visit her home in County Galway—Coole Park.
The play tells the story of a young man called Michael who is to be married. As it happens, an old woman passes by and comes into the house as he and his family prepare, and Michal begins to be lured by her towards the action breaking out by the sea—the 1798 rebellion. ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’ is a really short play and there are versions easily available online. It’s well worth a look, especially if you have an interest in Irish history and folklore.
Look: if you want a solid dark academia vibe in a book, while also living the dark academia aesthetic by reading something old as hell, try Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1896). It’s long but it’s wonderful and honestly it’s kind of like the ancestor to Donna Tartt’s books (and by Donna Tartt’s books I mean The Secret History and The Goldfinch, we’re pretending The Little Friend didn’t happen.
Jude the Obscure is an absolutely crushing book about the life of a guy called Jude, who’s poor and doesn’t have many prospects, but who desperately wants to rise through the ranks and go to university. His whole life is one big tragedy—thwarted love, empty marriages, flawed ambition, and absolute desolation. It’s beautiful and hopeless and crushing, and really you should read it just for Father Time. Who’s Father Time, I hear you ask?
I’m not telling.
Another one to go for if you like classics, or even if you don’t, is Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.
Jane Austen! I hear you cry.
Oh dear god, not Jane Austen! you say.
I’m not a massive Austen fan myself, I must admit. But Northanger Abbey is completely unlike any other Austen book, if I dare say so. It’s a satire on the gothic novel, which was a genre all about haunted houses and damsels uncovering family mysteries and giant helmets falling out of the sky to crush people (yes, that actually happened in one gothic novel).
It’s like a mystery/adventure all tied up with a romance, and it’s genuinely a delight to read. Northanger Abbey takes all the gothic tropes and twists them around, poking fun at the entire genre, and it’s just so enjoyable to read.
Okay, look. I was going to write more. I was going to recommend entire reading lists of books, to touch on more genres, to do all sorts of magical things. But I’m not sure anyone needs the full weight of my nerdery, so I’ll keep that to myself for now. And also this is getting rather long and if it gets any longer I shall have to start killing my darlings and we won’t have that.
If you want to know more about any of these books, do let me know. And if there‘s something you’d like to see on this blog—a post or a review or anything at all—then get in touch! Everyone has been very lovely so far and I would love to continue that trend.
This blog post was chosen by a poll I ran on Twitter—you can follow me here if you’d like to see more of my ramblings about weird books and writing and nonsense.
For now, goodbye and good luck.
 Peter S. Baker, ‘The Wanderer’, Old English Aerobics, online anthology, http://www.oldenglishaerobics.net/wanderer.php [accessed 31/07/2020]  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, Collector’s Edition (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), p. 508  Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, eds. V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson, A Norton Critical Edition, II (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005)  I can’t vouch for any of the Modern English translations as I haven’t read them, but I know there are a lot available online. If you wanted to look at a scholarly edition, I’d go for the renowned Norton Critical Edition (cited above) which you can usually find in a good second-hand bookshop that deals in academic texts. I got mine in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway.  William Butler Yeats, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, in ‘The Hour-Glass; Cathleen Ni Houlihan; The Pot of Broth’ (London; Maunsel and Co. Ltd, 1905)  William Butler Yeats, ed. John Kelly, The Man and the Echo in ‘W.B. Yeats’ (London: Everyman Poetry, 1997) pp. 86  Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, Penguin Popular Classics (London: Penguin Books, 1994)  See Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto for more information about giant helmets. It was also the first gothic novel, pretty much, so that’s neat. Good job Horace.